By Amanda Marcotte
The views expressed are her own.
Few events can tune Beltway TVs to C-SPAN like a sex scandal press conference. Yesterday, Herman Cain, as expected, issued a blanket denial of all accusations of sexual harassment, including the two incidents that ended in settlements between the National Restaurant Association and the complainants. But Cain didn’t limit himself to denials. He went on to cast aspersions on the mental health of the one accuser, Sharon Bialek, calling her a “troubled woman” being exploited by the “Democrat machine”.
The only surprising thing about Cain’s invective is that it came straight from his mouth. Most politicians keep their distance from the muck, leaving surrogates to the job of denigrating foes. In general, though, evoking negative stereotypes about women’s mental health is standard-operating-procedure for those trying to pry public figures from accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. As history has shown, changing the conversation from the accusation of what he did to gossiping about who she is works remarkably well to protect those accused of sexual misconduct. Even in cases with substantive evidence behind the allegations, and even when the accuser’s character has no bearing on the facts of the case.
For a quick lesson in how this routine works, look at Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged attempted rape of a hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo. The initial reports stuck to the evidence at hand: the DNA samples, the evidence from the rape kit, the testimony from those who assisted the alleged victim. Strauss-Kahn’s defense team, however, moved swiftly to change the subject to the more fruitful topic of the character of the accuser. Stories began to trickle out to the media: The accuser had unsavory friends. She had acknowledged Strauss-Kahn’s wealth during a private discussion of the case. She had lied to immigration officials about past sexual abuse to improve her application. There were insinuations about her sexual behavior and her mental health. The leaks worked; once the mainstream media started talking about Diallo’s history, they stopped talking as much about Strauss-Kahn’s. Even more importantly, they stopped talking about the evidence collected by the police.
Call it the “nutty and slutty” strategy, after David Brock’s infamous characterization of Anita Hill in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings. The hearings are well-known for making sexual harassment a national issue, but that case also helped set the pattern for changing the subject when a prominent man is accused of sexual harassment or assault. The process goes something like this:
1. Accusations are initially treated seriously, with straightforward media reports on the evidence and implications.